January 3, 2013 Subject:
The Lucky Mill
Ioan Slavici (1848-1925) was an important Romanian writer. A native of Transylvania, he was a founding father of the nation of Romania's native story-tellers, active during the period when Transylvania unified with Romania, in 1918, and earlier when Romania became independent of the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Unfortunately he chose the wrong side of history - a supporter of Germany during WWI and a virulent anti-Semite - his reputation never recovered in the post-war years when he was ostracized by Romanian intellectuals. Today he is almost completely unknown in the English speaking world, which is not entirely surprising since most classic Romanian writers remain untranslated.
Slavici wrote many novels and short stories, but his best known, outside of Romania, is The Lucky Mill (1881), adapted to film in 1957 as "The Mill of Good Luck". It appears to be the only major work of his that has been translated into English, in 1919. I first came across it when a digital scan showed up on Internet Archive's daily new books feed. I really enjoy discovering obscure writers by accident this way.
Like many of his stories, The Lucky Mill is about peasant life in remote mountainous regions of Transylvania, where the modern rule of law conflicts with ancient customs. "Big Men", or Chieftains, who manage roaming pig herds in the woods, rule over the local peasants with impunity, stealing and murdering. They are immune from the law, which exists for the benefit of the powerful (whom the Chieftains work for), while the peasants live by ancient codes of honor. It's the kind of story any poor person living today in Iraq or Afghanistan or Chechnya would immediately connect with, but is probably remote to modern readers living in a society governed securely by law. The story is effective at conveying the feeling of oppressive fear in ones own home, of being trapped and forced into a degrading situation and unable to do anything about it, with no one but yourself to protect your interests. The protagonists take on epic qualities, it is easy to forget they are men of little consequence and power beyond what they create by playing "the game". It's a glimpse into an old world, heroic and epic, oppressive and afraid. Overall I thought the story was atmospheric and well crafted, but at a loss for the translation which is stilted in the dialogue. It's not world-class literature, but very good regional. The evil character, a dashing Transylvanian swine herder, has a dark and brooding blood-lust, an animal sexuality, that gives the story punch, it's easy to see how Bram Stoker found inspiration in this part of the world for his most famous character.